Confidence in mended knee sparks late power surge for Oxford senior Simpson
by Joe Medley
OXFORD — It’s tempting to wonder what could have been, if Trent Simpson had a full, healthy senior baseball season at Oxford.

There was his key home run in Game 1 of the state finals a year ago. He’s punctuating this season with quite a power surge, with six home runs over the past two weekends.

His home runs powered the Yellow Jackets (17-15) into the playoffs, then past third-ranked Huntsville in the first round.

Defending Class 6A champion Oxford seems right on schedule, heading into this weekend’s second-round series against Grissom at home. Simpson seems right on schedule blasting pitches over fences and playing his customary first-base slot.

But there was that months-long detour for Simpson. It took time for his left knee to mend from an injury that ended his senior football season and more time for him to regain confidence in a knee that buckled without contact.

There was a process that started with rehabilitation, followed by his return to the batting order as a designated hitter in the Calhoun County final, then to the field toward the end of the regular season.

Yes, Simpson is back, and in a big way.

Oxford is making another postseason run — how big still is to be determined.

That middle part, however, was tough for Simpson, a Mississippi State signee who hopes to have seen the last of knee injuries.

“For about the past month is where I started to really get to where I trusted it more and more,” he said. “Just like they told me, as long as I’ve got my brace on, I don’t have anything to worry about. My knee is perfectly healthy.

“And they said to have fun and don’t hold back.”

Simpson isn’t holding back. Of his seven home runs this season, six came in the past two weeks. He hit one home run in each of three games against Pell City, keying Oxford’s return to the playoffs, then three in Game 1 of the playoff series at Huntsville.

Even with that, one is left wondering what could have been. Pell City walked Simpson six times over the first two games — three times in each game, after he homered in his first at-bat.

Huntsville walked Simpson twice in Game 1 of their playoff series after he homered in his first three at-bats.

The walks prompted Oxford coach Wes Brooks to experiment with a lineup change, moving .450 hitter Joe Maguire from leadoff to the No. 3 hole behind Simpson. Maguire made Huntsville pay for walking Simpson, hitting a home run of his own.

“That ended up helping out,”Brooks said. “Now, I don’t know, going into this series (against Grissom), if we’re going to go back to our old lineup, depending on whether they intentionally walk him or not.”

Brooks even gave serious consideration to batting Simpson in the leadoff spot in Game 2 at Huntsville, just to give Huntsville more incentive to pitch to him.

“He’s just hitting the ball real well,” Brooks said. “He’s always been a strong kid. He’s always had a lot of amazing power. His power is as good as anybody’s that I’ve ever had.”

Funny thing happens to power, though, when a right-handed hitter worries about his left knee buckling.

That happened to Simpson in a football game at, coincidentally, Pell City. A defensive end in football, he was rushing the quarterback and went down without contact.

If that could happen once, then Simpson feared it could happen again, when he leads with his left foot to swing a baseball bat.

“There’s still that little bit of doubt, in the back of my mind of, ‘Hey, remember how it happened?’” he said.

Simpson underwent surgery on Oct. 30 and began rehab the next day. He went to rehab three times a week for nearly four months.

“It was tough,” he said. “There were points where I wanted to give in, but I knew that, if this is the hardest thing I have in my life, then I’ll have a pretty good life.”

He made his first game appearance seven games into the season, playing as designated hitter against Alexandria in the county final March 5. He hadn’t practiced with the team to that point but nearly hit the game-tying home run, driving a ball to the left-field fence.

It wound up being a breath-taking pop fly.

Brooks said Simpson has hit several balls like that near-miss in the county tournament, some off the fence. Again, who knows what might have been, if Simpson had full offseason and early season practice with full confidence in his knee?

“He didn’t ‘come out of his shoes’ and really let loose and turn on it earlier, when he returned,” Brooks said. “As he’s gone on, he’s gotten more confidence.

“He’s got a great knee. He’s got a great knee brace. He just has to trust it.”

Brooks and Simpson have kept everything about Simpson’s full return to the lineup on a schedule. They had a target date for Simpson’s re-entry as designated hitter, then a target date for his return to first base.

There was a plan for Simpson to pitch some, but he experienced tenderness in the knee while working in the bullpen in practice about two weeks ago.

“He’s back fine now, but we’re just not going to push the issue and try to make him throw,” Brooks said.

Simpson returned to play at first base nearly a month after returning to the batting order as designated hitter. He took his time working back into the field, mainly because he didn’t want to jeopardize the team.

“I probably went through a month of practice, getting every ground ball and fly ball, before I even tried to play in a game at first base,” he said. “I didn’t want to put my team in a lesser chance of winning because, maybe, I hadn’t seen enough ground balls and one scoots through my legs.”

In terms of his hitting, the knee injury has helped him become a more disciplined hitter.

“It’s kind of weird, but if I ever do get out on my front foot like I’m in front of the ball, it’ll hurt me sometimes,” he said. “I can feel it a little bit, and it’s another reminder that, ‘Hey, you need to stay back and let the ball get to you.’”

Staying back helped Simpson during his recent power surge. His final two home runs at Huntsville went opposite field.

“His second at-bat, I think it was maybe an offspeed pitch that he stayed back and went to right field on,” Brooks said. “The third at-bat was like an 0-2 missed fastball up and away, and he just stuck his hands out there and hit it out to right field again.”

Some of that discipline comes with experience, which makes one wonder what Simpson’s senior season would have been like without the knee injury that delayed his reaching full swing.

“I do wish I would have gotten to play the whole year,” he said. “But also, I don’t need to spend any time pouting about it. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.
© 2013